David E. Crawford
Chair, BAMSL Well-Being Committee, 2019-20
Patent Attorney/Founding Member, Crawford IP Law
Originally published in the December 2019 issue of the St. Louis Lawyer magazine. View in the archives.
The holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day is a joyous season for some, but others find this season challenging. Rather than dwelling on the myriad reasons why the holidays can be difficult, we can take actions that increase our ability to overcome the challenges and ease their effects.
The holiday season started with Thanksgiving Day, which to many is a day to overeat and watch ballgames. However, Thanksgiving is intended to allow us time to contemplate how fortunate we are and to give thanks. Even without acknowledging a higher entity, we can appreciate what we have. Gratitude involves recognizing we have a positive outcome for which an external source is responsible at least in part. Experiencing and expressing gratitude is an affirmation of goodness.
Research has demonstrated that expressing gratitude has value as a practice and people can deliberately cultivate gratitude. Practicing gratitude boosts happiness and fosters both physical and psychological health. Studies show that practicing gratitude shifts inner attention away from negative emotions, minimizing the possibility of ruminating over them. Ruminative thinking is a hallmark of depression and anxiety.
Two effective ways to reduce rumination are practicing mindfulness and gratitude journaling.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation in which the participant focuses attention on a very specific sensation or activity for a period of time. Focusing on some aspect of your breath is a common way to meditate. For instance, you may focus on movement of your diaphragm or cool air rushing through your nasal passages. Focus is difficult to maintain. By its nature, our mind is susceptible to wandering. During mindfulness meditation, a participant recognizes his or her mind has wandered and refocuses his or her attention on the selected sensation or activity. Realizing that the mind has wandered should be without judging and refocusing the mind should be gentle. Everyone's mind wanders.
The point of mindfulness is not to cause negative thinking but to alleviate it. Meditation sessions often last 20-40 minutes but practicing for periods as short as 6 minutes has been found to be effective. The effectiveness of short duration mediation is reassuring as many of us live our lives in 6-minute intervals.
Gratitude journaling entails recognizing situations or events for which we are thankful and writing them in a journal. Gratitude journaling often is practiced daily or sometimes twice a day. Writing
the entries longhand on paper is beneficial due to kinesthetic reinforcement the act of writing provides. Many people journal until they reach a specific number of situations or events for which they are grateful. For example, some people journal until they recognize five or seven situations or events. For those under stress, finding three things they are grateful for can be difficult. They might start by taking a deep breath and writing, "(1) I am grateful for air to breathe."
Research has shown doing good works for others makes us happier. Lawyers are uniquely positioned to offer their services to particular populations for reduced fees or free. For example, lawyers might offer legal services to low-income artists and musicians through Volunteer Layers and Accountants for the Arts, act as guardian ad litem for a low-income child, help a domestic violence victim obtain an order of protection, or mediate a dispute between pro se landlords and tenants. Many of us look upon these tasks as a lawyer's civic duty and professional obligation, but this may dull the psychological benefit we could receive from our good works. Take time to savor your pro bono service. Silently congratulate yourself. If you receive no recognition, take it as a point of pride that you performed pro bono service without being recognized. Anonymous mitzvahs can be the most powerful.
Offering free legal services to low-income clients can be fulfilling when we take time to appreciate our deeds, but physically serving less fortunate folks can connect us more directly with the benefits we receive from our good acts. Examples of this type of work include feeding the homeless at shelters, teaching illiterate adults to read, or helping sort packages at BAMSL's Motions for Kids. Serving others, particularly without expecting acknowledgement or thanks, can be extraordinarily fulfilling. Moreover, spending time with less fortunate people is a great way to cultivate gratitude.
Mind your binging
Holiday gatherings are plentiful during this season and they offer rich food, desserts, and free booze. Go easy on the food and drink because eating or drinking too much can have negative physical and psychological effects. Binge eating can make you feel lousy both physically and emotionally. Good nutrition is one cornerstone of good physical and mental health. Further, binge eating can damage your metabolism and your heart. Overeating can also disrupt your circadian rhythm and induce depression. Take a moment to remember that a clean diet provides benefits almost immediately before reaching for that second slice of pie.
You know that drinking too much alcohol can result in a hangover or social embarrassment. You may also recognize that over-imbibing increases your risk of injuries from assaults, car crashes, and falls. But did you know that binge drinking increases your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, cancer, suicide, memory problems, and alcohol dependence? Be mindful of the effects of binging during the holidays when opportunities to overindulge are everywhere.
Get outside and move
Many people start exercising at the beginning of the new year. Exercise and spending time outdoors have been found to improve physical and mental health. Why wait for the new year when the benefits of exercise and spending time outdoors can help now during the holiday season? Start your new year resolutions early and reap the benefits while we are most stressed. Nothing says resolutions must be made on New Year's Eve. Just like we can mentally start a bad day over at any time, we can restart our resolutions or take up new ones at any time.
The Science of Well-Being
If you are interested in well-being, consider taking a college course. One of the most popular courses at Yale is "The Science of Well-Being." Prof. Laurie Santos teaches the course, which is designed to make participants happier and provide a more fulfilling life. She offers the same course online to anyone through coursera.com. The course is available for free or you can earn a certificate by taking quizzes, participating in additional activities, and paying a small fee.
If you would like to join the BAMSL Well-Being Committee, please contact Dave Crawford at (314) 858-9500.